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China's drone giant DJI hits back at U.S. security concerns

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A man checks a DJI drone during the Consumer Electronics Show, Ces Asia 2019 in Shanghai on June 11, 2019. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A man checks a DJI drone during the Consumer Electronics Show, Ces Asia 2019 in Shanghai on June 11, 2019. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP)

Another Chinese tech giant is now at the center of national security concerns raised by the U.S. Senate.

DJI, a Chinese company that dominates the commercial drone market in the U.S., published an 1800-word letter on Monday striking back against mounting concerns on Capitol Hill over spying, following the recent ban on the Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

“The security of a company’s products depends on the safeguards it employs, not where its headquarters is located,” the Shenzhen-based drone maker said in an open letter to Senators on Monday.

During a hearing hosted by Transportation Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee last week, some of the experts testified that they believe that DJI has the potential to send data back to China, which poses serious risks.

“American geospatial information is flown to Chinese data centers at an unprecedented level. This literally gives a Chinese company a view from above of our nation. DJI says that American data is safe, but its use of proprietary software networks means how would we know?” said Harry Wingo, Chair of the Cyber Security Department from the National Defense University. “When you consider protecting a U.S. city at that level, to hand that information over is concerning.”

Catherine Cahill, director at the Alaska Center for UAS Integration, acknowledges the cost-effective system DJI has developed. But she believes “the data from DJI UAS was automatically being sent back to the manufacturer in China.”

In a letter DJI sent to the subcommittee on Monday, the drone maker vigorously denied the accusation.

DJI sent an open letter to U.S. senators
DJI sent an open letter to U.S. senators on Monday

“DJI drones do not share flight logs, photos or videos unless the drone pilot deliberately chooses to do so. They do not automatically send flight data to China or anywhere else,” Mario Rebello, Vice President and Regional Manager of North America at DJI, wrote. “They do not automatically transmit photos or videos over the internet. This data stays solely on the drone and on the pilot’s mobile device. DJI cannot share customer data it never receives.”

Washington has been raising red flags about Chinese tech companies over the last few months. In May, the Department of Homeland Security issued an alert warning that commercial drones manufactured by Chinese suppliers may be collecting and transmitting information back to China, without naming DJI. The U.S. also blacklisted Huawei and considered banning China’s security camera makers like Hikvision.

As China-U.S. trade tensions drag on, the trust level between the two countries, especially in high-tech areas, has also deteriorated. Some lawmakers in the U.S. worry about the backdoors to Beijing that Chinese companies may have. Meanwhile, China has accused the U.S. of trying to stop the Chinese from developing their technology.

Washintgon’s concerns haven’t deterred DJI’s efforts to win more government contracts. On Monday, DJI launched a government edition drone system, which blocks access to the internet and only stores information on the device. Unlike Huawei, whose smartphone and telecom products haven’t had the chance to enter the mainstream market in the U.S., DJI products are widely sold in stores like BestBuy and even used by police in New York and California.

“We were aware of the concerns that were shared early on about the data transmission or potential data transmission with DJI,” Lieutenant Matt Snelson in Fremont, California told Reuters in May. “We did research, and we don't feel like that is a concern for our agency or for our program at this point. We’re confident that our data is secure and and staying private.”

Krystal Hu covers technology and China for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.

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